Research Article

Global Epigenomic Reconfiguration During Mammalian Brain Development

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Science  09 Aug 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6146, 1237905
DOI: 10.1126/science.1237905

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Structured Abstract


Several lines of evidence point to a key role for dynamic epigenetic changes during brain development, maturation, and learning. DNA methylation (mC) is a stable covalent modification that persists in post-mitotic cells throughout their lifetime, defining their cellular identity. However, the methylation status at each of the ~1 billion cytosines in the genome is potentially an information-rich and flexible substrate for epigenetic modification that can be altered by cellular activity. Indeed, changes in DNA methylation have been implicated in learning and memory, as well as in age-related cognitive decline. However, little is known about the cell type–specific patterning of DNA methylation and its dynamics during mammalian brain development.

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The DNA methylation landscape of human and mouse neurons is dynamically reconfigured through development. Base-resolution analysis allowed identification of methylation in the CG and CH context (H = A, C, or T). Unlike other differentiated cell types, neurons accumulate substantial mCH during the early years of life, coinciding with the period of synaptogenesis and brain maturation.


We performed genome-wide single-base resolution profiling of the composition, patterning, cell specificity, and dynamics of DNA methylation in the frontal cortex of humans and mice throughout their lifespan (MethylC-Seq). Furthermore, we generated base-resolution maps of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (hmC) in mammalian brains by TAB-Seq at key developmental stages, accompanied by RNA-Seq transcriptional profiling.


Extensive methylome reconfiguration occurs during development from fetal to young adult. In this period, coincident with synaptogenesis, highly conserved non-CG methylation (mCH) accumulates in neurons, but not glia, to become the dominant form of methylation in the human neuronal genome. We uncovered surprisingly complex features of brain cell DNA methylation at multiple scales, first by identifying intragenic methylation patterns in neurons and glia that distinguish genes with cell type–specific activity. Second, we report a novel mCH signature that identifies genes escaping X-chromosome inactivation in neurons. Third, we find >100,000 developmentally dynamic and cell type–specific differentially CG-methylated regions that are enriched at putative regulatory regions of the genome. Finally, whole-genome detection of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (hmC) at single-base resolution revealed that this mark is present in fetal brain cells at locations that lose CG methylation and become activated during development. CG-demethylation at these hmC-poised loci depends on Tet2 activity.


Whole-genome single-base resolution methylcytosine and hydroxymethylcytosine maps revealed profound changes during frontal cortex development in humans and mice. These results extend our knowledge of the unique role of DNA methylation in brain development and function, and offer a new framework for testing the role of the epigenome in healthy function and in pathological disruptions of neural circuits. Overall, brain cell DNA methylation has unique features that are precisely conserved, yet dynamic and cell-type specific.

Epigenetic Brainscape

Epigenetic modifications and their potential changes during development are of high interest, but few studies have characterized such differences. Lister et al. (1237905, published online 4 July; see the Perspective by Gabel and Greenberg) report whole-genome base-resolution analysis of DNA cytosine modifications and transcriptome analysis in the frontal cortex of human and mouse brains at multiple developmental stages. The high-resolution mapping of DNA cytosine methylation (5mC) and one of its oxidation derivatives (5hmC) at key developmental stages provides a comprehensive resource covering the temporal dynamics of these epigenetic modifications in neurons compared to glia. The data suggest that methylation marks are dynamic during brain development in both humans and mice.


DNA methylation is implicated in mammalian brain development and plasticity underlying learning and memory. We report the genome-wide composition, patterning, cell specificity, and dynamics of DNA methylation at single-base resolution in human and mouse frontal cortex throughout their lifespan. Widespread methylome reconfiguration occurs during fetal to young adult development, coincident with synaptogenesis. During this period, highly conserved non-CG methylation (mCH) accumulates in neurons, but not glia, to become the dominant form of methylation in the human neuronal genome. Moreover, we found an mCH signature that identifies genes escaping X-chromosome inactivation. Last, whole-genome single-base resolution 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (hmC) maps revealed that hmC marks fetal brain cell genomes at putative regulatory regions that are CG-demethylated and activated in the adult brain and that CG demethylation at these hmC-poised loci depends on Tet2 activity.

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